Thursday 15 October 2009

75 - 'Gruppenbild mit Dame' by Heinrich Böll

I'm feeling a little washed out at the moment; reading in a foreign language does that to you. Although my German is fairly good, reading German books in the original version is always a more difficult task than reading anything in English, so getting through this 374-page novel of wartime Cologne was a big task (and I'm very happy, and relieved, to have managed it in just under a week - although my continued absence from work may have had something to do with that...). I apologise, however, dear reader, if I have led you to believe that I didn't enjoy the week; this book is definitely worth the time spent on it.

Just as with my previous Böll novel, 'Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum', 'Gruppenbild mit Dame' (translated, rather clumsily, as 'Group Portrait with Lady' - sometimes translation can be an inexact science) concentrates on a female central character, whose life is laid out for the reader through interviews and documents. However, the treatment of Leni Pfeiffer, the heroine of this novel, differs in several important ways from that of the charming (and deadly) Katharina B. Where the reason for the interest in Ms. Blum's life is clear from the start, the reader is mainly left in the dark as to why Leni's life is important enough to be reconstructed. In addition, while 'Gruppenbild mit Dame' is at least three times as long as 'Die Verlorene Ehre...', the enigmatic Leni is seldom to be seen or heard.

Of course, this is part of Böll's plan (and a very good one it is too). Through interviews with a couple of dozen friends, colleagues and family members, not only Leni's life is described; Böll also paints a picture of life in Cologne as lived by ordinary people before, during and shortly after World War II. The supposed objectivity, which gives the story a semi-historical feel, is enhanced by the use of an intermediary to gather the facts and conduct interviews. This man, known only as Der Verf. (the 'Verf.', presumably short for Verfasser, or editor) acts as a guide through the tangled web of relationships which need to be uncovered in order to find the truth about Leni's life.

At first, the book appears to drag a little. The constant interviews, the lengthy monologues (some of which go on for dozens of pages with relatively few paragraph breaks), the constant referral to sources; for the reader who is looking for an answer as to why this research is being carried out, frustration slowly sets in. However, it soon becomes clear that this research is being done to tell us about everyone - not just Leni, but all the people in her life - and how they made it through this awful time in history (and what became of them afterwards).

The main thread of the book, Leni's story, is a simple one, and we know most of it right from the start. A young German girl loses a lover at the start of the war, marries (and then loses) another soldier and then falls hopelessly in love with Boris, a Russian POW working with her in her wartime job making wreaths for funerals. It sound a little far-fetched, but Böll sets the situation up meticulously so that there is not the slightest bit of doubt as to the authenticity of the situation. Of course, this relationship would have cost both of them their lives if it had been discovered (especially with some Nazi co-workers on the lookout for any seditious activity), so it progresses slowly and in great secrecy until normal life starts to unravel in 1945.

The story makes it quite clear that the war was lost by 1945, and the fearsome air attack on Cologne on the 2nd of March (described near the end of the book in several accounts) was followed closely by the Americans' entry into the city. However, the line between war and peace was not as defined as we may expect; there was a long period where defeat was certain, but there was no telling how long the war would drag on for, and this is perhaps the most fascinating part of the book. Each of the characters interviewed had to think about both how to get through their day alive and how they would avoid punishment once the Allies had taken over. For women and children, this wasn't such a great concern, but anyone who had been heavily involved in the war effort had to make contingency plans and gather proof of their relative 'cleanliness' to use in peace time - all the while hiding this from the military who would have shot them for defeatism...

What happens after the war is even more interesting. Some of the characters come out of their ducking and diving smelling of roses while others, generally the quieter and more honest ones, struggle to make ends meet. Those who have profited from their war-time experiences stress, in their interviews with Verf., the efforts they took to help other people and the work they put in (and the risks they took) to build their fortunes. However, thanks to the multitude of sources available to the reader, we are able to hear the other side of the story, and the way the less fortunate describe events does not always tally with the description the winners give.

One of the central themes running through this book is the success of capitalism and survival of the fittest; by 1970, when Verf. is carrying out his research, the political pendulum seemed to be swinging back to the conservative side of the spectrum (if not quite to the Nazi side...). Two scenes towards the end of the novel illustrate this. In the first, two businessmen (who have known Leni since they were babies) explain why they are going to throw her out on the street, using debts she has run up as an excuse to cancel her lease (frozen at a price well below the market rate). In their eyes, Leni is failing the market system by refusing to work, even though she is only in her forties, and sub-letting rooms at the same price to foreign workers, thus perverting the market and ensuring that the workers send their money home rather than spending it in Germany!

The second involves a psychological report on Leni's son, Lev, who is in prison for deliberate falsification of documents. The report, while generally positive and well meant, criticises Lev for what it describes as his 'Leistungsverweigerung' (a refusal to perform to his full potential). That may seem a little harsh, but you need the full background to understand how harsh. Lev has always done his job well, but in his refusal to make an effort at school and his disinclination to use his talents to the full at work and move up to a managerial position, he is deemed to be offending against his employers - and his society. Capitalism gone mad...

In all this madness, we, like the characters in the book, are forced to make decisions and take a stand. It is very clear where Böll's sympathies lie, and this is shown in the way Verf.'s attitude changes as the novel nears its close, from a fully detached objective chronicler, to a more involved relater of tales until he finally (like the reader) becomes emotionally involved in the story, to the extent that he begins to be a part of the events he is supposed to be recording.

This is a very good book (as you would expect from a work which gave the Nobel Prize committee a final gentle nudge), but it's also very different. It requires a lot of patience, a fair amount of interest in the history behind it and an ability to critically engage with the text. Coming from a country on the other side of the front line, I found many of the details in this book new and surprising. Obviously, I don't know quite as much about the war as I'd thought... As the Second World War recedes into history, it's important to look back, as Böll does, to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the future.